As I returned to work this past week, I thought I was the only one crying every day.
Turns out I wasn’t.
Do you know how many different types of grief there are? There are a lot. Complicated, anticipatory, chronic, delayed, distorted, secondary, masked, collective. Oh, and normal. (There’s more, but I got tired of typing them. Grief is tiring.)
I found lists of types of grief when I went looking for information about “complex grief”–a term I thought I’d read somewhere along the way–but that seems to be the same as “complicated grief,” which is what mental health professionals use for grief so long-lasting and severe that it interferes with normal functioning.
I didn’t find a word for the kind I’ve been seeing and feeling, not just at work but all around me. I wanted a word for the grief that comes from bearing witness to all the varied types of grief being carried in those surrounding you, while carrying your own, while still carrying on with what is expected of you. If there were, I suspect a lot of us would be suffering from it.
I spent too much time on Friday and Saturday trying to write about this, but the draft I labored over has too many words. They exhaust me. (I took a long, deep nap on Saturday afternoon.)
The grief isn’t just about schools and teaching. It’s not just about the pandemic. It’s all of it, the whole big ball of change and instability.
Friday night I watched a pre-2010 romcom, something I’ve been doing throughout this summer. These movies fill me with nostalgia for a pre-smartphone world. They fill me with nostalgia for a time when I took for granted things I didn’t even know I had, that I now know the contours of through the spaces made by their absence. I see many of those things in the subtext of these movies that are silly and unrealistic and fun and oblivious to so many, many things. (They are a lot like pre-2010 me.)
I watch them to escape. I watch them also to ground myself in what’s real now. I watch the beautiful (almost always white) actors and actresses (can we still use “actress”? probably not) who were born in the same decade I was dance their way through familiar cinematic choreography, and, in the cases when something in the plot hinges on communication that is not face-to-face, send an email or whip out a flip-phone and talk, and I cannot pretend that we are not now living in a fundamentally different time. The things that were so vitally important to them! The sources of their anguish! While watching, I usually Google the cast of the movie so I can see what they look like now. They almost all look old now in the ways I do, their beauty fading or faded. (My god, we were so beautiful! Why can’t we see, when we are young, how beautiful we are?) On my phone I see the physical manifestation of time passed, which grounds me in the truth that the era in which those movies were made and made sense is not the one in which I’m currently living.
I think the romcoms are part of my attempt to embrace radical acceptance. The opposite of radical acceptance is denial, and that’s a road I’ve followed to far more poor life choices than I’d like to admit.
Radical acceptance of the world we’re living in now is painful, but not as painful as it is to fight the world as though we’re still living in the one we once had (or thought we did).
Radical acceptance is bringing me a kind of peace and calm I’ve never experienced before.
Peace and calm does not mean I’m OK. It does not mean I’m happy. It does not mean I am without pain. (It comes with pain, but the right kind.)
It does mean I am no longer beating my head against walls that will not be moved by my brain splatter.
Radical acceptance might look like defeat, but I’m finding it brings a different kind of power that is keeping me in the fight.
On the last day of the first week of my return to school/work, I didn’t cry once. This felt like progress. Educator friends and I posted funnynotfunny comments on FB about using crying as a metric in setting our annual professional goals.
This is how we are going to get through. Community. Empathy. Humor. Truth-telling. It’s how people have always gotten through hard times, though some of us have lived such fortunate lives thus far that we haven’t had to learn that until now.
My colleague friends and I will all write official goals that won’t matter much to the real work we’ll be doing this year. That we’ll have to do that doesn’t really matter. What matters is creating real strategies for meeting this time we’re in.
There’s a lot I don’t know any more, but these are my goals, driven not by any set of data but by what I need to do good for those I serve:
Know what’s true.
Own my truth.
Take care of myself.
Love my people.
That’s it. It’s enough.